Monet’s Sunlit Ponds, Lofty Cathedrals Star in Paris: Review

"Poppies at Argenteuil" (1873), an oil on canvas by Claude Monet. The work is on loan from the Musee d'Orsay to the show "Monet 1840-1926" which runs at the Grand Palais, Paris, through Jan 24, 2011. Source: Reunion des Musees Nationaux via Bloomberg

To celebrate Claude Monet at the Grand Palais in Paris, the organizers have assembled 169 canvases, loaned from 75 museums and private collections. It’s the biggest solo show devoted to the Impressionist master.

That doesn’t mean it’s complete.

The Musee Marmottan, Paris home to the largest Monet holdings in the world, has refused to cooperate. The curators there are preparing a show of their own. So you’ll look in vain for “Impression, Sunrise,” the painting that gave the art movement its name. (You can take solace in a couple of gorgeous sunsets, painted in Vetheuil and London.)

Nor has Monet’s last major project -- the murals at the Orangerie in the Tuileries garden -- budged. They’re just a short stroll away.

Apart from these gaps, this is probably the richest overview of Monet’s output you can hope to find in one place.

Thankfully, the organizers haven’t tried to be original or to startle us with some fancy new theory. They present the canvases more or less chronologically, grouping some of them around particular locations or themes -- haystacks, poplars, cathedrals, views of London and Venice.

As for the famous facade of the Rouen cathedral, the curators have concocted a joke: They confront five versions by Monet with five pop renditions by Roy Lichtenstein.

The show starts with Monet’s early landscapes, the forest of Fontainebleau, the Norman coast where he grew up and the villages on the Seine where he later lived. He soon discovered that he was particularly good at capturing reflections on water; it remained one of his specialties.

Portrait of Camille

Monet was mostly, though not exclusively, a landscape painter. The show includes still lifes, portraits, picnics, garden parties and family dinners. The most moving of his portraits is a deathbed image of Camille, his first wife who died after a botched abortion.

It’s hard today to understand the vicious attacks on the Impressionists: Le Figaro’s critic (April 3, 1876) called Monet a “guignol artistique,” an artistic clown. The artist’s paintings of cathedrals reminded the writer Edmond de Goncourt of “yellow snot.”

The bland wall texts, unfortunately, are silent about the agonizingly slow recognition of Monet’s work which, at one point, almost drove him to suicide. Nor do they tell us anything about his eye problems and how they coarsened his style after 1908. Only the belated cataract operation in 1923 is briefly mentioned.

When you are halfway through the exhibition and walk down to the first floor from the second to see the other half, you also have reached the turning point in Monet’s life: At age 50, in 1890, he was financially secure enough to buy the house at Giverny, modest for a family of 10, that he had rented in 1883. It became his favorite subject.

Three years later, he enlarged the garden, had a pool dug, built a Japanese footbridge, which he personally painted green, and imported exotic water lilies that obsessed him until the end of his life.

The exhibition, which is supported by Natixis SA, opens today and runs through Jan. 24, 2011. Information: or +33-1-4477-8007.

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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